It was less than one year ago that former Clemson defensive end Bryant McNeal was just sitting in his house, watching the NFL Draft on ESPN.
It was a quiet day, really not much going on.
After all, he wasn't necessarily expecting to be drafted that high, so it wasn't like there was some kind of huge party taking place at the McNeal household.
Maybe he would get picked somewhere in the 6th or 7th round, or at the very least he would sign on with a team as an undrafted free agent.
Little did he know that his entire world was about to change right before his very eyes.
As he was sitting there watching the draft unfold, the Denver Broncos came out of nowhere and picked him in the 4th round as the 128th overall selection.
"I couldn't believe it," said McNeal. "I was thinking maybe I'd sign on with someone after the draft, but then Denver picked me up right after they got Nick. It was a big surprise because there were only a few coaches telling me that I would be taken in the middle rounds."
Apparently, Denver was just one of the teams showing the interest in him at NFL Combines last February, but if any team was going to draft him, McNeal was figuring it would be Kansas City.
"They (KC) were the ones that were interviewing me the most," said McNeal. "Denver had interviewed me some, but the Chiefs were the one team that was really looking at me. I think that made it even more surprising for me that it ended up being Denver."
Life in the NFL
McNeal headed out to the Mile High City only to find himself facing an uphill battle on the Broncos depth chart. In fact, he never saw the field as a rookie.
Part of that was due to inexperience, part due to injury.
"About the sixth week of the season, I was doing some squats, and strained my back a little bit. It wasn't that bad, but they were giving me treatments and they put me on IR because I wasn't playing anyway. I never was injured in college, and then to have something like that happen to you right when you start, it was kind of hard to believe." said McNeal.
McNeal finished the year on injured reserve, without bitterness or remorse.
Now however, he has turned his attention to the offseason as he prepares to try and make a run for serious playing time in 2004.
So what's the offseason like for a pro-football player trying to make a name for himself in the NFL?
Well, it involves a lot of weightlifting, a lot of running, and of course, a lot of racquetball.
"I've been working out pretty hard and running everyday, playing a lot of racquetball," said McNeal. "Racquetball really helps you out with your quickness, so I've been doing a lot of that. They want me to be a third down specialist. Coach Milar doesn't really care about me gaining weight or anything, but they want me in good condition coming into camp."
McNeal started all 13 games during his senior season at Clemson, finishing the year with 67 total tackles and 9 sacks. His 9 sacks led the Tigers and also helped earn him second-team All-ACC honors.
And as we've seen with many of the athletes who have left Tiger Town and gone onto to bigger and better things, McNeal is another player who looks back very fondly on his Clemson career.
Being all the way out in Denver, he still managed to follow the Tigers closely on television last year, and he even made it back for the Florida State game last November.
"The way they ended the season was one of the greatest things I've ever seen," said McNeal reflecting on the Tigers' 4-game winning streak to close out 2003. "Me and Nick watched the South Carolina game and the Tennessee game on television, it was great how they all pulled together."
The former Tiger is also helping out some of the guys from Clemson that figure to make an impact in the draft this year.
"I've talked a lot with Khaleed Vaughn, DeJuan Polk, John Leake and just about everybody else," said McNeal. "I used to talk to John after every game. The main thing I try to tell those guys (about the next level) is that they have to be in condition. Khaleed called me two days ago getting ready for combine, I told him don't even worry about it, but I think he's kind of nervous."
What About Nick?
Of course, McNeal was the second Tiger selected by the Broncos in last year's draft. Teammate Nick Eason was taken by Denver just 14 spots before him.
"Me and Nick hang out a lot," said McNeal. "We've both got apartments in the same complex, so we'll go out to eat, and watch the games, mainly stuff like that."
Eason's first year in Denver was somewhat of a roller coaster ride as the former first team All-ACC selection unexpectedly left training camp after only a few days of action.
The story was documented by ESPN in one their seasonal specials, but McNeal says that most of it had to do with Eason just being overworked during practice.
"They brought him in there and then Daryl Gardener got hurt, so he was taking a lot of snaps and just doing a lot of work. I think that kind of took a toll on him," said McNeal.
Eason didn't play in 2003, but the Broncos organization has been very high on him from the very beginning.
"They love Nick," said McNeal. "They really do. He's probably one of the biggest defensive tackles on the roster. He'll play. They really love him."
While McNeal has the luxury of having several former Tigers with him in Denver, (Trevor Pryce also plays for the Broncos) the bulk of his work clearly lies directly in front of him.
Entering his second year with the team, now will be the time to show that he can truly "stick" in the National Football League.
This offseason will be imperative if he's going to make an impact of any kind next year in the Mile High City.
"I'm working hard," said McNeal. "Working real hard."
Hopefully all of that hard work, will pay off in some more playing time, not to mention a long term contract.
We'll find out soon enough.
Former Tiger Eyes Next Season
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